What I remembered about the film were a couple of vague images of James Mason and Ava Gardner hugging each other -- something which happens only twice in the film and for about a minute each time. Just goes to show you where my adolescent brain was when I saw this as a kid. (Hugging! Awesome!)
What I saw Monday was a luridly vivid flashback doomfest with the corniest narration ever written with a straight face for actors to say with even straighter faces. About once every five minutes, Nigel Patrick frowns on-screen and we hear his voice-over say: "I had a deep sense of potential tragedy" or "I had a deep feeling of dread and despair." By the tenth time he did it, I was finishing his sentences from the audience.
NIGEL PATRICK: [for the tenth time] I had a deep feeling of --
NIGEL PATRICK: -- impending doom.
OLD GUY SITTING NEXT TO ME: I would have said foreboding too.
The plot is listed as the tenth definition of the word "ludicrous" in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for 1950. A British antiquarian in a Spanish seaport in 1930 gets his hands on the purported handwritten diary of the legendary Flying Dutchman just as said Dutchman's crewless yacht anchors offshore for his once-every-seven-years "I have six months to live on land and find a woman who loves me enough to die for me or else I will be doomed to live forever" curse. And if that isn't enough of a coinkydink for you, the Dutchman's long-dead wife is the spitting image of Pandora (Ava Gardner) Roberts, who happens to be vacationing at the fishing village, said vacation involving watching goo-goo eyed British alcoholic poets kill themselves for love of her and obsessed matadors commit murder for her. (Which is pretty much what Ava did in real life, if the tabloids are even half correct.)
Overall? Outside of the first 30 minutes, the film makes grand opera look like a Chekhov play. But those first 30 minutes? Surprisingly good. Ava is a total ice goddess, not caring who dies around her, not feeling anything for anybody, getting her kicks out of fast cars and pushing people to their limits. "If you want me to marry you? Push your racing car into the sea," she says to the other goo-goo-eyed Brit, the world-record-holding racecar driver who doesn't kill himself but drives fast enough to make you wonder. And of course he pushes his metallic baby (named Pandora of course) into the briny, during which there is a fantastic deep-focus shot of Ava looking down from the cliff to the widening splash, and then turning to face the sky and the stars with a "Here I am, take me!" smile on her face, the kind of lush Technicolor look that made every guy in the Film Forum run outside onto West Houston Street to find a cliff they could push a Ford over. (You should have heard the car alarms.) So Ava sets the wedding date six months from now, then she lets Racing Boy retrieve his car if he wants to; and when he does, he's the only one in the world who figures this marriage is still on. We know it isn't, that's for sure. But then we've seen Ava swim nude out to that crewless yacht and meet James Mason for the first time.
They lock eyes at about the 30 minute mark, and from then on it's a triangle that (a) really only has two sides (cuz, y'know, it's Ava Gardner and James Mason; there's no way they're NOT going to end up together) and (b) turns into a quadrangle once the matador shows up, which amps up the foreboding and dread meter to 12. There are a lot of moments where Ava is staring darkly at Mason or looking around with doom-laden anticipation to see where he is. There's a bullfight rehearsal as well as a real bullfight. There's a murder and a lot of "Please feel this now" narration from our resident antiquarian. (The narration in this movie is the verbal equivalent of a silent movie with more titles than actual scenes.) There's an extended flashback-within-a-flashback where the Dutchman tells his dark and dreadful history, and you wonder what the hell kind of curse dooms a guy to immortality for killing his adulterous wife who's not really adulterous.
GOD: Because you killed an innocent woman, you will be punished accordingly!
DUTCHMAN: Oh no!
GOD: You will live forever until some other innocent woman loves you enough to die for you.
DUTCHMAN: Say what now?
GOD: You will live forever until a woman loves you enough to die for you!
DUTCHMAN: You mean hates me enough to kill me in revenge, right?
GOD: No! Foolish mortal! She has to love you enough to die for you!
DUTCHMAN: So I committed murder, and my punishment is that I never age or die until some woman commits suicide over me?
DUTCHMAN: Great; where do I sign up?
As I mentioned, there's a bullfight, which means there's also a matador -- which, if you know anything about Ava Gardner, is a hoot and a half, because if Larry, Moe and Curly Joe ever dressed up as matadors, Gardner would have slept with all three of them at once. (One of the best Hollywood in-jokes ever is in Tony Rome, when Frank Sinatra says: "Yeah, I used to know a broad who collected bullfighters." When Gardner saw the film, they say you could have heard her spit take in Antarctica.) Needless to say (but here I am, saying it anyway) Ava had an affair with the bullfighter who plays the bullfighter in this movie (Mario Cabre, above). He's obviously in love with her. As is the director, the cameraman, the hairdresser, the makeup guy, the lighting guy, the costume designer, the extras playing the toreadors, and every dentally-challenged fisherman in the Spanish town where they did principal photography. There's no way you can't be in love with this woman. She is that gorgeous in this movie. She has to be, because the plot makes no sense unless you actually believe that an ice goddess would take one look at a complete stranger and be willing to die for him. And the only way you're going to believe that is if you wind up falling in love with the ice goddess yourself. Which is pretty easy when she looks like this:
Male fantasy, anybody? Because I can't for the life of me imagine what a woman would think of this movie. It's not like Gardner's Pandora grows a heart or anything, even though she does go from bitchy to tender when she's dealing with her only female rival in this movie, who (to make the dark lady/fair lady Ivanhoe comparison) plays dried-up Joan Fontaine to Ava's juicy Elizabeth Taylor. No, it's more like Pandora finally finds the proper channel for her inability to care about anything. It's not the Dutchman she's in love with, it's Death. She's the bride of death. Which is a quintessentially male corner of the romantic garden, the corner where Tristan and Iseolte are buried beside Romeo and Juliet. To make the obvious generality: only men love to imagine that a woman is willing to die for them. Women are made of stronger stuff; they love to imagine men who are willing to live for them. And as Oscar Wilde would say, both are disappointed.